Friday, March 25, 2011

Fore-edge painting of the Pont a la Carraia

Specimens of the early English poets, 1790, bound by Edwards of Halifax. 
Fore-edge painting of the house of Sir Thomas Claverings, Oxwell Park, Northumberland

The Boston Public Library has a most excellent online collection of fore-edge book paintings.  Anne C. Bromer's short essay there explains the development of this art form after the sixteenth century, when 'a Venetian artist, Cesare Vecellio, devised a way to enhance the beauty of a book by painting on its edges. The images, mostly portraits, were easily viewed when the covers of the book were closed. A century later in England, Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the royal family, developed the art of the “disappearing painting” on the fore-edge of a book. ... In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, fore-edge painting reached its height in England. The famous bookbinding firm, which is always referred to with “the territorial suffix” Edwards of Halifax, was responsible for this surge of interest. Artists were employed to paint landscape scenes with country estates on the fore-edges of books, which were then handsomely bound in painted vellum covers or in exotic leather bindings.'

The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, 1865
Fore-edge painting of the Pont a la Carraia, Florence

The river scene in Florence above is actually one of two landscapes on this edition of Thomas Moore's poems.  It is an example of a double fore-edge - when the pages are bent to the right instead of the left, a different scene appears, showing Enniscorthy in Wexford.  Sometimes fore-edge landscapes were directly related to the book's contents, like the edition of Oberon below, or William Rae Wilson's Travels in the Holy Land, Egypt &c. &c. (1831), volume 1 of which shows a view of Joppa and volume 2 a view of Corfu.  Others seem to have no obvious link - a four volume edition of Homer features views of Eton from the river, Hampton Court Place, Oystermouth Castle and the city of Bath.

Oberon : a poem, from the German of Wieland by William Sotheby, 1798.
Fore-edge painting of a scene from the book - "Go hence to Bagdad'"

I've written here before about our fascination with the 'homes and haunts' of writers, in books like Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape and Edward Thomas's The Literary Pilgrim in EnglandLooking through the Boston Public Library collection you can see how often fore-edge paintings provided picturesque views of the author's home.  Examples include Robert Burns' cottage, Alexander Pope's villa, William Cowper's house at Weston and the childhood home of John Wesley to accompany A collection of Hymns, for the use of the people called Methodists (1825).  Mary Brunton, author of Emmeline, was born on the Island of Burray, giving the bookbinders scope for a view of blue-grey mountains and sea.  Milton's birthplace in Bread Street, London, may have been harder to idealise, but the school he attended, St Paul's, provided a splendid vista, while other editions of his work featured a view of London Bridge and the cottage at Chalfont St Giles to which he retired during the Great Plague of London.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The falls of Cora Linn

The Clyde at New Lanark, March 2011

On Saturday August 20th 1803, Coleridge and the Wordsworths arrived in Lanark.  William headed off immediately to look at the celebrated waterfalls, leaving the others to find an inn.  Rejecting the Black Bull, whose 'genteel apartments' turned out to be 'the abode of dirt and poverty', they opted for the New Inn, where they sat in the parlour (tables unwiped, floor dirty and the smell of liquor 'most offensive'), grateful for a rest.  Dorothy's diary records that 'poor Coleridge was unwell', struggling with withdrawal symptoms, but she set off after William, hoping to meet him by the falls.  Evening was drawing in though, and she found that 'the Falls of the Clyde were shut up in a gentleman's grounds, and to be viewed only by means of lock and key'. Next day however, all three were able to see the falls of Cora Linn, where they sat on a bench placed specially for the view.  Dorothy was struck with astonishment, 'which died away, giving place to more delightful feelings; though there were some buildings that I could have wished had not been there, though at first unnoticed.'

'A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls.  Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall.  Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before.  'Yes, sir,' says Coleridge, 'it is a majestic waterfall.'  'Sublime and beautiful,' replied his friend.  Poor Coleridge could make no answer, and, not very desirous to continue the conversation, came to us and related the story, laughing heartily.'

Cora Linn Falls

I mentioned in a previous post that 'the 'astounding flood', as William described the falls of Cora Linn, appears less impressive now that hydroelectric power has been introduced to the Clyde.' This is evident in the photograph above which I took on Saturday.  The site today is a nature reserve, part of the New Lanark world heritage site, and the sign at Cora Linn explains that the electricity produced there 'is important not only for people, but also for wildlife'.  Other notices nearby warn visitors to stick to the path and be aware that the hydroelectric power station can cause water levels in the river to suddenly change.  Not that I was planning to have a dip - the walk itself was rewarding enough - and half way between Cora Linn and the falls of Bonnington Linn I stood for a while watching a peregrine falcon (its nesting site well signposted).  It is a steep walk back up to Lanark and I had a train to catch back to Glasgow and thence to London.  Dorothy Wordsworth and the poets returned for one more night at the New Inn where they 'ate heartily' of a 'true Scottish' dish: 'boiled sheep's head, with the hair singed off.'

Hydroelectric pipes near Cora Linn

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Threads Across the River

Richard Skelton is interviewed by Clive Bell in the latest issue of The Wire, talking about landscape and loss and photographed on Anglezarke Moor, standing alone by a dry stone wall near a recumbent (dead?) sheep. There is a fascinating discussion of Skelton's music making en plein air, as they walk the moors and visit places that feature on Landings - an album I discussed here in an earlier post.  The clip below features 'Scar Tissue', which was 'the result of a single encounter with a particular place', and 'Threads Across the River', 'an accretion of different times and different places ... a weave of sounds recorded in the two ruins which straddle the river Yarrow: Old Rachel's and Simms.'

The interview moves on to talk about ways in which the landscape has permeated Skelton's musical instruments - grasses and leaves intertwined around a fretboard, balsam leaves threaded into the sound hole of a mandola, bits of bark used as plectra.  "Because I was using really cheap instruments, I could leave them out in the wood and cover them in leaves.  It didn't matter if they got knackered.  I was coming to terms with a process of decay."  I've written here before about Ross Bolleter's pianos, left exposed in the landscape until 'all the damp and unrequited loves of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin dry out, degrading to a heap of rotten wood and rusting wire'.

The article also touches on a third way in which Skelton makes direct connections with the West Pennine Moors, in addition to exposing his instruments to the elements and recording himself in the wider soundscape (you can hear birdsong at the end of the clip above - 'Pariah', another track from Landings).  Discussing Box of Birch, Skelton says he has sometimes tried to play the environment directly: bowing barbed wire and playing trees to get a 'grating, rattling undercurrent'. "The barbed wire stretched across the landscape was like the strings on an instrument" he says, a comment that reminded me of my recent post on the aeolian telephone wires of Australia. I suppose the trouble with attempting to 'play a landscape' is the risk of seeming to possess and use it, rather than amplify its natural sounds. Of course it should be possible to making sounds from a living tree without harming it, and yet I wonder if the clip below (which I came upon via Twitter) would seem less acceptable if it involved a tree located out in some 'wild' location. 

Finally, I should return to Richard Skelton and mention his latest release, Wolf Notes, which was 'inspired by the landscape, place-names, flora and fauna of Ulpha, in Cumbria'.  There is a useful review at The Liminal which describes Skelton's use of 'the place names, the roots, of Cumbria ...  Wolf Notes derives from the etymological root of ‘ulpha’, understood to mean “the hill frequented by wolves,” from the Old Norse ulfr, “wolf”, and haugr, “hill or mound.”' The limited first edition (now sold out) came with a book of poems, a glossary and a 'phial of specially prepared, hand-mixed incense made from birch leaves, yarrow, wild grasses and a selection of resins.'

Friday, March 11, 2011

The storm runs forth on several seas

Harriet Tarlo's anthology of radical landscape poetry The Ground Aslant, which I previewed in an earlier post, has now been published.  Shearsman have made the book's introduction available to download on their website, so there's no real need for me to summarise its contents.  Here instead is an unrepresentative sequence of quotations (copyright prevents the inclusion of whole poems), chosen to provide 'some landscapes' from each of the sixteen poets, starting with the editor:

Black Combe crest

       over ridges                      shale spit line
                                         pale marram dunes           (their small sea-bright
                                                                                  trefoils and succulents) ...

- from 'Outcrops at Haverrig', by Harriet Tarlo

                                    ...between loss and consolidation
                                       in the hollow of the dune slack

- from the second short poem in Thomas A. Clark's sequence 'The Grey Fold'

                                   ... the new salt marsh
                                       no more freshwater
                                       the salt line
                                       grey grass
                                       bleached trees
                                       byre useless ...

- from the April section of 'Myne' by Frances Presley, on a walk from Greenaleigh to Porlock Bay

                                     ... I hear mud rustle
                                     ducks come in to land
                                     tide recedes in intensity

                                     blood filled hands
                                     I mean lands
                                     the duck glides
                                     and lands

- from 'lights' by Ian Davidson, whose afterword to his collection At a Stretch worries that 'there may be too much landscape' in his poetry...

                  ...  At Kingwater the stream plashes
     kingcups over the green ironbridge, pupae to dust wedges
     and rust coloured reflections of trees in water.
     Flag irises, rhododendrons.  Out of focus pine trees, lacking their bitmap,
     alive only in geological time. ...

- from 'The Stars Have Broken in Pieces' in which Nicholas Johnson passes through the landscape of northern England, from Derbyshire to Cumbria

                       through white trees nothing said
                                     the edges grow sharper the hills
                                                     farther away with each degree

- from 'Gwydyr Forest' by Zoƫ Skoulding

                    ...This is a wood you increase by coming-out-of-it -
                       out into the snow with a sawing motion of it -
bear-lope        muskrat-ramble     badger-trundle            marten-amble...

- from 'Carcajou' by Colin Simms, poet and naturalist who was the subject of an earlier post here

Trees pale in knot but nowhere in cooped flux of them, not-bending swivels a sky foldlessly relenting.  Leaning skyward can't suffer on the slant, only drawn off slope by the unholdable intimacy of vertical separation.

- from 'Lean Earth Off Trees Unaslant, 3' by Peter Larkin

... a little light at dusk by which to sit and read the blanched white ash-stems reaching sky
       ward the steep woody tangle above the tumbling stream each stem gleams in the January dull ...

- from Wendy Mulford's 'Alltud: 'exile'', part of a description of the Wye valley at Erwood in Powys

                    Snow has settled in the lines
                    Of an old ridge-and-furrow system
                    Striping the gently sloping dark
                    Green fields, engrossed script
                    Of duration, repetition, authority...

- from 'Prelude' by Peter Riley

                   the feeding of one into the landscape results
                   in a climbing to infinity this opens the labour of a day
                   the task is to find a distribution of fields
                   and from these the truth of this place ...

the first lines of Carol Watts' Zeta Landscape, which the author has described as "lyric nature poetry put under pressure"

                      scarp    along Don's arc shall   ow hanging
                      loops of pow   er-line   pylons   dull silvery
                      frames holding   dead space live   to shock oak

                      leaves pat drips & drop   rain through fractal

- from 'Rurban Membrane, A Sheffield Rim, North East' by Mark Goodwin

                                       ... Eyes

                                    pull on
                    contours held in common:
                 plough through   brick, steel, steads
                       under cooling towers, the soils
              worn thin for nitrogen ...

- from 'aurals' by Tony Baker, a landscape seen on 'the journey toward Mansfield'       

                                   ... seductive flowertrails
                                       penetrate the hills where we confront
                                       the ambiguity of wayposts &
                                       clouds that distil a thin
                                       gleet ...

    - from 'Lady's Bedstraw (Gallium verum) / Quantocks' by Elisabeth Bletsoe, who, as reported here, I saw at the second Re-Enchantment event last year

                            The storm runs forth on several seas whose manner is
                            the hard edge of a clamber down gneiss...

    - the opening words of 'Dale' by Helen Macdonald 

                                          Ripples take
                                          mackerel from
                                          imbues dew.

                                          Dew jewels more
                                          obviously ground.

                                          no shadow but
                                          the arc
                                          amongst crystals

    - from the 'High clouds base >20,000 feet' column of a tabular poem, one of a sequence called The Speed of Clouds by Mark Dickinson

      Saturday, March 05, 2011

      The Morning Sea

      There is a short poem by C. P. Cavafy, 'The Morning Sea' (1915), in which the poet stops and gazes out from the yellow shore on the brilliant blue of the sea.  'Let me stand here.  And let me pretend I see all this' he says, but what he actually sees are 'memories, those sensual images.'  It is an example of one kind of poetry where the themes of landscape and love intersect: the poet tries to concentrate on the beauty of nature but only sees a reflection of his own feelings.  English literature includes the example below, where Sir Philip Sidney concludes that 'infected minds infect each thing they see.' However, I'm sure there must also be poems that work the other way round, where landscape infects desire and strong memories of a place overshadow the sight of a loved one...

      In wonted walks, since wonted fancies change,
      Some cause there is, which of strange cause doth rise:
      For in each thing whereto mine eye doth range,
      Part of my pain, me-seems, engraved lies.

      The rocks, which were of constant mind the mark,
      In climbing steep, now hard refusal show;
      The shading woods seem now my sun to dark,
      And stately hills disdain to look so low.

      The restful caves now restless visions give;
      In dales I see each way a hard ascent:
      Like late-mown meads, late cut from joy I live;

      Alas, sweet brooks do in my tears augment:
         Rocks, woods, hills, caves, dales, meads, brooks, answer me;
         Infected minds infect each thing they see.

      Friday, March 04, 2011

      Without Colours

      The exterior panels of Northern Renaissance altarpieces were sometimes painted in what my computer would call 'grayscale' but what art historians refer to as 'grisaille' (a term invented in the seventeenth century to describe stained glass in different shades of grey).  As Susie Nash points out in her book Northern Renaissance Art, these grey panels would also have provided a 'suitably less materially-rich image for Lent and ordinary feast days, and a more durable protective covering, easier to repaint and with no colours to fade.'  Typically these would show Biblical figures as if they were statues and would contrast dramatically when opened with the 'real' figures painted inside.  No wooden altarpiece could have supported the weight of actual stone sculpture and so painting 'made possible the impossible, and painters developed and complicated the idea further by representing sculpture that would have been near-impossible to carve, or in which there is ambiguity about whether what is represented is a sculpted or living form.'  Once artists had developed this practice of painting disconcertingly life-like stone figures, it was not too great a step to replace their sculptural niche with a natural setting - a grisaille landscape.

      Jan Gossaert, Saint Jerome Penitent, ca. 1510

      The panels above showing Saint Jerome in the wilderness have clearly left the idea of painted sculpture behind - but for the grisaille they are fairly traditional depiction of the story (showing two earlier episodes in the saint's life in the background).  In other media, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts were also being produced at this time in monochrome or with deliberately reduced palettes, emphasising form over colour.  But looking at this painting on a grisaille winter's day last week, in the National Gallery's new exhibition Jan Gossaert's Renaissance, I was still struck by the scene's uncanny resemblance to a world turned to stone. Perhaps it is because Saint Jerome himself is holding a rock, as he kneels in the rocky landscape with a great stone city in the background, whilst on the other panel, the statue-like figure of Christ is set on a petrified tree beneath an ash-coloured sky.    

      Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights outer wings, c1490-1510

      Possibly the best known grisaille outer panels from this period are those of Hieronymus Bosch and those for The Garden of Earthly Delights show the earth as it was on the third day of creation.  This is a world before colour, where land is only just emerging from the misty sea under dark rain clouds, and newly formed trees are seen alongside other stranger growths, half-vegetable, half-mineral.   Italo Calvino's story 'Without Colours', in Cosmicomics, describes the the beauty of the grey earth before an atmosphere has formed to filter the light of the sun.  Here 'trees of smoke-colored lava stretched out twisted branches from which hung thin leaves of slate.  Butterflies of ash flying over clay meadows hovered above opaque crystal daises...' Calvino's hero Qfwfq, who yearns for contrast, colour and sound, falls in love with the beautiful Ayl, 'a happy inhabitant of the silence that reigns where all vibration is excluded'.  When the world begins to change Ayl takes fright at the disruption to her beloved neutral landscape and they are parted.  As Qfwfq looks sadly out on the 'canary-yellow fields which striped the tawny hills sloping down to a sea full of azure glints, all seemed so trivial...'  He realises Ayl could never have been happy here among 'those gilded and silvered gleams, those little clouds that turned from blue to pink, those green leaves that yellowed every autumn, and that Ayl's perfect world was lost forever.' 

      The Brothers Quay, cover for Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, 
       a photographic collage grisaille landscape.